The Getting Things Done workshop at TCUK15

At the TCUK15 conference this year, John Kearney and I gave a workshop covering some techniques for “Getting Things Done” as well as general productivity tips. All of this was aimed at helping our technical communicator peers get all the things done.

Prior to the conference, we sent out some optional homework.

  1. You can start by looking at Karen’s TCUK14 slides. Note the link on the last slide that goes to a bigger reference list on her website.
  2. That brings us to the second homework item: Reading about the science behind GTD.
  3. Think about a project (or the pile of stuff you need to do) that you can bring to the workshop. Having a real-life example to work with is ideal. You can bring it on an electronic device or in a notebook or just a few sheets of paper.
  4. Consider bringing a “GTD tool” with you to the workshop. A notebook and a pen is just fine. If you are bringing an electronic device, try downloading Evernote or OneNote. Both are free and very popular to use for organising tasks. We’ll use them to demonstrate GTD principles, but it’ll be up to you to find what tool or method works best for you. After all, you are the one getting things done! By the way, if you are already using a tool that you rather like, bring it along for a show-and-tell during the workshop.

The workshop slides are on SlideShare, which will please those of you who have asked for them. The rest of this blog post is the raw (and very long) script that we put together for structuring the workshop. It grew from our discussions and planning sessions on Skype, Google Docs, and Twitter DMs! Thank goodness for technology when two speakers live in two different countries! By the way, the script is not verbatim.

We welcome your questions in the comments.

Part 1 – Introductions

Welcome to the GTD workshop for technical communicators! Note: We use GTD as the abbreviation for getting things done, but our talk is also about general productivity, not just the David Allen stuff. It’s just easier to refer to the whole thing today as GTD.


Normally I eschew intros. Participants want substance immediately, not CVs. However, this intro tells a story. I think GTD (Getting Things Done) is a journey, a life-long path, if you will. This is the story of my journey and of John’s journey. I’ve told the story of my start on this path in my GTD presos in 2014. A chance remark from a colleague at work during a slightly hectic time with deadlines in 2013 made me realise I was losing CONTROL (remember that word) and PERSPECTIVE (remember that word). With my colleague’s help, which I fortunately had the courage to ask for, I went back to reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, and actually read it and started implementing its ideas.

I also realised that the bigger picture was about my productivity. It wasn’t just GTD tips and tricks from David Allen. It was about any and every step I could take to stay in CONTROL of my work and maintain the appropriate PERSPECTIVE on my work – past, present, and future. I became more conscious of how I did my work and learned to think more about how and where I could improve my work processes. My goal was to truly enjoy my work and not reach burnout, exhaustion. To achieve or re-gain my creative skills and have fun.

I used to brag how I could always get the job done whether I had 2 hours or 2 weeks. I’d deliver something under whatever constraints there were. I was a prof. writer, after all. Using styles and templates meant I was already a step ahead, right? I did deliver, but often by using weekends and evenings and getting drained. This began to irritate Spare-Time Karen. She wanted to read books, meet her friends, see an exhibition, but work always interrupted. Work priorities ate up spare-time priorities. And Information-Junkie Karen kept finding new things to investigate. The work/life workload was getting out of control and way out of balance.


So, how did I get interested in this?

I’m the kind of person who has a hyperactive mind. I like variety in my worklife, and enjoy juggling problems and commitments. The issue with that is that it’s not a very good model for working when a huge pile of work arrives on your desk, or when you volunteer for something, and so on and so forth.

Also, I could use some discipline when it comes to getting into the things that interest me. When I’m at TCUK, my brain is on fire when I think of all the new things I’m learning and all the ideas I’m having. I love it, and it keeps drawing me back.

The problem is that in the weeks that follow all my good intentions to blog about it, to Storify my tweets, to write up a report to share with my colleagues, all those cool things are just so hard to pin down. Why? Because I’m constantly moving on to the next thing that interests me.

In GTD, I saw an opportunity to learn about something that could help me harness this energy. So, when Karen and I were talking about TCUK15, I suggested tentatively that perhaps we could run a workshop on this. To my delight, she jumped at the idea, and here we are.

So from my point of view, I’m still at the “joy of discovery” stage. I know that I’m starting to have really good results with GTD, but I need to learn more. When David Allen said “We teach what we need to learn,” that really struck a chord with me. So that’s why I’m here, and I hope to learn things from this workshop too.

Part 2 – Our first exercise

[Based a lot on this TEDxAmsterdam 2014 video of David Allen.]

We want to kick off this workshop and your understanding of the Getting Things Done models with a little exercise. Please hold your questions for a little while.

David Allan talks a lot about “mind like water” in his writing and his presentations. It’s a martial arts reference, and it sounds vaguely familiar to me from other contexts. Think how water in a pond behave when you throw a pebble into it. The pebble goes plonk, ripples flow outward, and then all is still again. The same happens if you throw a big rock into the water. The water takes in the interruption and is then smooth again soon after. It’s this concept he refers to. The pebbles and rocks that approach your mind are emails, calls, plans, and much more. Can you absorb them calmly, or do you duck and run? David Allen says that having his mind in this state lets him be himself and handle whatever is thrown at him. He trusts he will be able to handle things appropriately thanks to his GTD toolkit.

We’re going to work with ways to get you to the “mind like water” stage.

Right now, think about something that is coming up in your future. Planning a party, planning a presentation, writing a new user manual, whatever. Think. Close your eyes if that helps and think what is uppermost in your mind. Maybe this thing is always on your mind, but it’s actually draining you – you continue to postpone working on it, and you haven’t yet taken any action on it. It’s just there and nagging you. That would mean it is driving you and you are not driving it! You are not “thinking about it appropriately so you can appropriately manage it”.

By writing it down, you’ll soon see that you are actually a planning machine! At least your brain is. It uses what David Allen calls the natural planning model, as you’ll soon discover.

PURPOSE: Now look at your topic, what you wrote and ask yourself: what is the main reason this exists? What is its primary PURPOSE? Write that down. You need to start out with a real purpose, a real intention that you want or need to have happen. That Christmas party needs to happen. That manual needs to be written. Why? For what purpose? Writing stuff down helps you get more ideas. You commit something to paper and free up some space in your head for more thinking. Oh, and if you wrote that your topic is writing a manual and the purpose is “because my boss told me to”, think again. We’ll get back to that. J

VISION: The step that follows PURPOSE is VISION. What is your vision of success? Write it down. What would mean success for you? How would you describe it? The Christmas party greatly improves the poor relationships between those 3 departments. That new user manual is praised by a previously negative customer as being the best user manual they have ever come across. If you said “my boss told me to” with writing a user manual, you may be hard pressed to come up with a vision. Maybe there is a message there. Maybe you know the new user manual is not what is really needed. Maybe that is why the project has been haunting you. By thinking through the steps we are taking now, you may be able to redefine a project where appropriate. Maybe the project is really “convince boss we need embedded videos in our help”, its purpose is to finally heed the many requests you have encountered for providing videos about handling the foobar because it is too darn tricky to just write in words, and thus, your vision becomes hoards of ecstatic customers heaping praise on you (or rather, your company) on Twitter. Perhaps the second vision is that you are ask to head up a department for new types of documentation deliverables.

IDEAS: Whatever you come up with, you mostly likely have a vision of a reality that definitely does not match your current reality. But your brain already realizes there is a discrepancy. The brain is trying to fix this by generating all kinds of potentially useful ideas. You are having a brain storm. J Ideas are popping up randomly. Now write down whatever pops into your mind now that could be potentially relevant to your project or topic – assuming that you actually want it to occur. Take a few moments to do this.

STRUCTURE: While ideas are popping up all over the place, another part of you starts creating a structure out of those ideas. You’ll think logically, critically, rationally. You evaluate. “I should do X before I do that idea.” “This idea is more important than that idea.” You’ll figure out what are the better ideas, the more important ideas, the first things you need to do. You’ll figure this all out based on sequences and patterns that you are probably already familiar with, or priorities that you know. Right now, just choose the 3 most important things that you need to deal with – just a simple little plan from the ideas you had in the previous step. Your tendency to begin structuring means that if you are planning a party, you are thinking about which restaurant to pick and who to invite. You begin to consider which of those two things you need to do first.

NEXT ACTION: The last step now is to figure out what the very next action should be. What must be the first step in this project? If you had to actually start this project right now, what is the very next action you need to take. It must be a physical, visible action. “Set up meeting with Bob” is not good enough. It would be “Book meeting room A in Outlook for the 25th of next month for meeting with Bob”. Write down your very next action.

This is what David Allen calls the natural planning model.

How many of you feel that you have gotten something done just now? That you have a definite next action or at least have used a few moments constructively thinking about a situation in your life?

This is often a step we skip. Few of us take time to think things through like this. We should relax and trust our brains to help us out with this natural planning model.

Unfortunately, most people do what he calls the unnatural planning model. There’s a problem at work, and the manager calls all team members together to brainstorm: who has a good idea. But that is stage 4. You don’t know what a good idea is until stage 4 and you just met! THIS is why people resist. Quite naturally. Or they “get busy” to look like they’re doing something because they don’t really know why they are doing something! There is no planning, no clarity, and trouble erupts along with pressure and stress. You end up in reactive planning mode.

David Allen says it’s not a matter of whether you do the natural mode, but when and at what cost. Do you let everything fall apart, call in a consultant out of desperation, and then the consultant says, “What’s the thing you all have to do and why?” David Allen says we “get busy” or panic because our greatest fear is the fear of being out of control. We don’t want to make mistakes or be wrong. Has anyone ever spoken up in a big business meeting and asked “I don’t understand what this is about”? Few ever do. Most people don’t trust that they know how to plan. We are afraid to jump into anything we don’t feel like we can engage with. Fear. Anxiety. Worry. Frustration. We have got to recondition ourselves. By trying this natural planning model, you should be able to get on top of anything and get a lot more creative space and remove that pressure.

Prioritising is also crucial. It does NOT create more time, but it adds more significance to what you need to do. What I can do today that will make the future better.

Having good habits in place is what helps us survive the rough spots.

Part 3 – So what is GTD?

GTD is basically about self-management, which Google calls “management of or by oneself; the taking of responsibility for one’s own behaviour and well-being.”

The keys to self-management according to David Allen are CONTROL and PERSPECTIVE.

It’s about emptying your head – freeing your mind – to do all the fun stuff – or to actually get your work done. 🙂

The concepts are for everyone, but how you apply them is up to you. Your measure of success is how YOU, not anyone else, feel each day. Today is just an intro to the concept of GTD. Your real exploration comes when you go back to your office or home.

The natural planning model is just one level of the GTD universe. To explain more about GTD, let’s zoom into the workflow David Allen developed.

It can take a day to get through all these steps the very first time you dive in. When you get into the rhythm, the workflow becomes a natural part of your daily routine taking only a few minutes or “happening automatically”.

  1. Gathering. Collect EVERYTHING to get things out of your head or off your desk where they are causing you stress. It’s all the stuff life is throwing at you all the time.
  2. Processing. This is using David Allen’s question “Is it actionable or not?”
    • No: eliminate (trash), incubate (someday/maybe), retrievable (reference)
    • Yes: Then what is the NEXT ACTION?

      1. Defer it
      2. Delegate it (good skill to learn)
      3. Do it. (Note: 2 min. tasks should be done immediately, but when first starting, many 2-min. tasks can add up to hours, defeating the purpose. First time? Just collect them.)

      As you process, skip nothing. Setting aside for later sets you up for more work.

  3. Now organise and prioritise. E.g. in the pile of customer visit information you’ve gathered and processed, what can you do first? When I did this, my next action was “Ask Frank who in sales can I speak to about finding the appropriate customer to visit”. All I needed to do was talk to Frank. When I had spoken to him, the next action popped up almost by itself.
  4. Now everything is ready for review. Review regularly! This is hard! It helps you always stay on top of things – which is the CONTROL part. The hard part comes from your brain continuing to keep a list in your head.
  5. When all is in place, you can begin to Do – and get things done. What you are doing includes the “next actions” from all of the above. Remember that next actions must be very specific. The key to getting things done is having next actions that are tangible, physical actions. You do not need major insight to do these things. That would take too much time. You need your time for the big things like what’s the meaning of life. Next actions should move you ahead. When you are not specific, you can flounder and have nagging thoughts about the incompleteness. Should I call, should I email, should I stop by the office or the desk? On and on. And if you cannot find a specific physical action, maybe that is a sign that something is wrong and you need to go back in the workflow to figure out why. It’s like a built-in QA test on your project.

Look back at this list

  • Gathering
  • Processing
  • Organising
  • Reviewing
  • Doing

and notice how CONTROL and PERSPECTIVE are present in these steps.

Your processing and prioritisation come from knowing the purpose, vision, etc. for your projects. By mastering this workflow, you gain the necessary control for following the visions of your projects.

Control is conscious, focused engagement, that makes you aware of all options at any one time and place.

Perspective is being aligned and clear about decisions, directions, and priorities. It’s also the level of your focus. Are you way up at 50,000 ft thinking about the purpose, or are you down on the ground working on next actions? Or somewhere in-between at the level of the vision, projects, etc. Perspective is how you control your tasks. If you need to get more things happening in your projects, lower the level. If you are losing perspective, elevate the level. You need the right level for your tasks.

You can work on getting the balance between control and perspective for the rest of your life, if you wish, and it doesn’t add to your “burden” of things to do. You hone and refine and learn from working on these things, and you should see improvement over time. At first, it can all seem abstract, but over time, you should find it provides a framework. This UX newsletter that I never read. Maybe I should unsubscribe because I am not working with UX right now and intend to go in this other direction? Or, I want to transition to UX because that is one of my major life projects, so perhaps I should make time for reading it regularly. And thus, you process according to your decisions.

Technical communicators need skills to be able to adapt without losing control and getting stressed or ill from the turbulence. Try these GTD skills and other productivity skills and see whether they can be the support to get you through your work more efficiently or to help you transition to new career choices. They can help you get back on the GTD wagon when you fall off.

  • Do your 2-min. tasks when they pop up
  • Do a daily and weekly review

Your energy should go to doing your actual tasks. Be careful that you don’t put too much energy into the administration of those tasks! Learn to let go of what isn’t really relevant and what is not your responsibility. Hanging on to things that are not your responsibility is what adds clutter to your mind.

David Allen summed up his general philosophy in an Atlantic article: it’s to “make as few plans as you can, capture every single thing that is potentially meaningful, and make sure you’ve got the appropriate maps (or lists) to be able to know where to focus.”

Part 4 – How does – or can – GTD apply to Techcomm?

So how does GTD apply to Techcomm? We looked at our own lives and came up with some ideas from our own experiences.


  1. Juggling the demands of content for two applications, with two working models. For one, the developers provide much of the content, so I’m a Tech Editor. For the other, the developers know very little about the content. And the releases coincide. I’m not currently using GTD techniques for this, but it’s starting to inform my thinking when it comes to dealing with people. I’m becoming a better and more consistent communicator because of it.
  2. Dealing with helicopter bosses: when landed with a pile of work, you may know the goal, but nothing else. Instead of being paralysed with fear, or frightened into unplanned action, you can map out a GTD list and present your requirements to your boss (and others involved).
  3. Dealing with legacy issues: As a Tech Author, you will likely have complex legacy doc issues landing in your lap. It happened with me recently, when I was asked to find the original document of a PDF sent out the customers by our Support function. I started searching in quite a haphazard way, until I remembered my GTD principles. A really knotty problem became much clearer and easier to handle once I planned things out first.


  1. Gets you respect from your boss. When you start practising your new productivity/GTD skills, you boss should notice and comment positively. Mine has at my mid-year review. He sees how we can deliver. He also sees how we have the control to speak up in time if there are delays.
  2. Gets you respect from colleagues.
    • Mentioned an improved time-saving process to a remote colleague. Ended up demoing it for 1 hour to him. He has requested a demo to his entire team. Upon hearing that, my boss wants the same demo for the rest of my department.
    • Due to our improved time-saving process (I’ll mention this later), two higher-level managers have definitely gained respect for our methods. I have seen this in their eyes. I believe it will add more weight to our input in future situations. In other words, GTD is what is helping us improve our value.
  3. Can save you from imposter syndrome. (Ensure audience knows what this is: basically, you’re not good enough or not deserving of some praise.) While listening to Riona MacNamara’s talk, “Imposter No More” at the Write The Docs conference recently in Prague, I realised that GTD can help sufferers fight their symptoms. The control you gain removes the feeling of being overwhelmed. It gives you the opportunity to prove your value – even to yourself. A whacked perspective can be what triggers your imposter syndrome, and GTD gives you that perspective back. I think this is a big deal that I am happy to discuss at any time during the remainder of the conference.
  4. If some of my earlier points haven’t made it clear, your lists and processes are your work externalised. People can see these things. You can respond quickly to requests for status info and the like. You aren’t digging for that needle in the haystack because your haystack is all ship-shape. It shows people you are in control.

So, based on what you have heard so far, and regardless of how much you know about GTD prior to this workshop, do you have ideas for how GTD can apply to techcomm?

Break for 15 minutes

Part 5 – Examples from real life from Karen & John

  1. I use colour-coding of my email along with some categories. Both are features of Outlook, but Gmail has labels and stars that are quite similar. I’ve gone from a black and white wall of meaningless text in my inbox to a mild colour variation – not a lot, but just enough so that I can process some mails more easily and much faster than before. Find out whether you can do something like this in your mail client.
  2. I add hashtags to my Outlook mails. Yes, you can actually edit subject lines for received emails. You can do the same to Gmail, but that requires you to make a reply or forward, say, to yourself. This is my taxonomy, or folksonomy, that helps me retrieve information when needed using keywords that are meaningful to me. The search facility in Outlook and in Gmail are so powerful, but the hashtags ensure your mail has the right keyword for a search.
  3. I often send my emails to OneNote (at work) or Evernote (at home). OneNote has a button for this and Evernote provides you with a unique mail address. In OneNote, I then store the message in a suitable folder. Examples are Flare tips, especially those that include .exe or .bat files. Less suitable to store in email. Better to store in OneNote where I can add info about the tool or tip. Having an easy way to send mails to your productivity tool is great. Oh, and I delete the copy in Outlook. No need for it.
  4. The big GTD tool in my life is being presented here at TCUK15 on Wednesday at 2.30 PM. My colleague, Mattias Sander, will explain how he set up Flare to not only be our authoring tool, but also our work management tool. Basically, we put our to-do list inside our authoring tool and I cannot express enough how awesome it is. I can see at a glance where I am on a particular project: writing stage, reviewing stage, editing stage, etc. And when I am done, I am done-done, as they say in Agile. Let Mattias explain it all if you are interested. Suffice it to say, we have a tool that truly helps us do our work and eliminates wasteful steps in the documentation workflow.
  5. Having the structure of GTD helps you if you have fallen off the wagon. It gives you a place to climb back on. It can also calm you during panic attacks.
  6. Prior to our software releases, I book review meetings for what we call domain managers. I do this 2 months or so in advance to ensure I can grab their time. This has worked successfully the last 3 releases. I think it adds to the respect we are gaining.
  7. GTD helped me plan for TCUK! I was delighted when I learned I’d get to present, but then I was terrified. It was Chris Atherton who helped me refocus using the GTD model when she asked me what the key takeaway of my presentation would be; what vision or idea did I want to share? I.e. what was my purpose and vision? The required tasks just fell out of the process naturally from there, relieving my anxiety, and making the entire process easier.
  8. Of course, it’s not just about work! I have a plan to take a holiday in New Zealand and Australia, based around the World Masters Games in Auckland in April 2017. Now, normally I might think of this event as being so far in the future that I don’t need to worry about it, and deal with occasional spikes of anxiety as I suddenly realised it was time to pay my entry fee, book my tickets, etc. With GTD, I can simply draw up my plan, deal with the things I need to now, and simply come back to the list on a regular basis.

Part 6 – Tools and Methods

  1. Squeeze ball for reading! Helps you focus. Also, small bean-bag ball to toss in air or back-and-forth for focus. Techniques to help you stay focused when you read.
  2. Noise-cancelling headphones. Oh.Em.Gee says I. Sensitive to sound? Worth every expensive penny. Also helps with focus.
  3. Have a tool that works for you: Evernote, OneNote, Things for Mac, Remember the Milk, Todoist, Tasks in Outlook or Gmail, Paper and Pen! Note that Evernote, OneNote, and Things support GTD directly. I don’t know about others.
  4. Set up folders in your mail client or electronic notebook, or a physical file or notebook for:
    1. Next actions
    2. Waiting for
    3. Projects
    4. Someday/Maybe
    5. Reference
  5. Scan or photograph objects, sketches, whiteboard scribbles so you can save them electronically. (I also do this with receipts, guarantees.) Advantage is that you can now tag them wherever you store them. The image itself is not searchable (image, duh!) in, say, Evernote, but you add tags like #NewManual #whiteboard #TOC #Version6, and you’re set.
  6. Record or dictate ideas, rather than jotting them down on paper or electronic paper. Walking down the street, coming out of the shower? Grab your phone and record for later transcription, or dictate with e.g. dictate feature in iPhone. It’s about emptying your head ASAP!
  7. “Clip” things from the web: links, quotes, articles, but do it consistently so you remember where to find them – and then tag them. Evernote and OneNote have clipping tools for your desktop or browser. There are others out there. It’s crucial to maintain the source of your clipping, too.
  8. Use a little paper notebook. I mention this specifically because David Allen made an interesting point in the Atlantic article that I agree with. Digital risks being out of sight and out of mind. You don’t see the pile of stuff you need to do, and you can overlook things. You need discipline to check your electronic devices for your work to ensure nothing goes bad. And it can be awfully nice to have luscious paper and a gorgeous pen to work with. Also, you don’t need to worry about batteries. 🙂
  9. Make lists to organise by context – called siloing. Some say it’s great, but it takes getting used to. These lists don’t replace project plans, but help track your next actions without the need to dig through each project to find a note to “call Frank”. Typical GTD thing to do in notebook, Evernote, OneNote, wherever. David Allen recommends these as starters:

    1. Agendas
    2. Anywhere
    3. Calls
    4. Computer
    5. Errands
    6. Home
    7. Office
    8. Waiting for
    9. Someday Maybe
    10. Projects

    Instead of putting a note on the calendar to call the plumber (which I often do), you add it to your call list. Then, when you have time to make phone calls, you call the plumber, order theater tickets, book dentist appointment in the same workflow. Add note to bring up financing your TCUK15 trip with boss to your agenda list. I find errands to be handy for those non-milk-and-eggs purchases. If you heard about a new tea shop or office supply shop, put them on the errands list and you might finally remember them next time you are out shopping. If you use this structure, use it diligently, and you will remember to check it each time you get home, get to the office, have a moment to make calls, go shopping, go to meetings.

  10. The terror of unstructured time! In my experience, one of the hardest things to do is to deal with a large amount of time when you have a long lists of tasks or jobs. You can end up cherrypicking easy tasks, or worse you can get distracted and end up leaving things until the last minute. I’ve found the twenty-minute trick to work really well here, at home and at work: I set a timer on my phone, or perhaps put on a podcast or a selection of music I know lasts around twenty minutes, and then I focus on burning through a task or small group of tasks in that time. This really focuses the mind, gives you that impending deadline feeling! And between periods, you can stretch, make a cuppa, check email, before starting again. If I do this at work, I definitely go home with a feeling of genuine accomplishment.

Part 7 – Hands-on – Go get things done

Now it’s your turn for the next 45 minutes. You don’t have the luxury of doing this where it really matters – at your desk or wherever you need to get things done. However, we hope you have a clear idea in your head of where you need to start work. If you brought material with you on a laptop, or just want to use paper and pen, great.

Think about the points we’ve made here and see what you can do to improve productivity in your life and get more things done. Call on us if you want some input. Bathroom breaks as needed during this time.

Work on your own, if you prefer, or work with others.

After 45 minutes, we’ll encourage you to share some of your ideas. You are welcome to just continue working, but if you discovered something on your own or after talking with others, we’d love to have you share your discovery with the whole group.

Part 8 – Sharing

Sharing is really crucial to learning even more about GTD. You will do your own thing, but when you share ideas, you inspire others and get inspiration for yourself.

Part 9 – What’s next?

We’ve been gathering, processing, organising, prioritising. Now we get to “do”. What are we going to do next? What is YOUR next action after this workshop?

You could practise on the conference itself:

  1. Blog about TCUK15 by a certain date.
  2. Write a single-author or multi-author article for Communicator! in one year’s time about how gaining control of your work, while maintaining your perspective has helped with a career change, job promotion, job hunt, etc.
  3. Make some new knowledge gained here at TCUK15 the focus of a project where you will apply GTD to master the skills for your job.

Or you could apply GTD to another sphere:

  1. Plan your next project.
  2. Sort your backlog of work.
  3. Plan a foreign trip!

Additional references with notes from our workshop preparation

Continuing to get things done – UA Europe conference follow-up

I had the good fortune to give a presentation for UA Conference Europe 6 June where I had a time slot of 45 minutes to share content for a lifetime. My next action after the presentation was to share the various articles that inspired my talk design in the early months of 2014. Not all were directly related, but they all gave me “getting things done” inspiration and got me thinking about the things that I need to or want to get done.

My talk was an introduction to the concept of getting things done. My talk was tool-agnostic, but I am using certain tools: Microsoft OneNote (I use it at work), Evernote (I am user number 640,681 out of the 100 million using the six-year-old app), and Cultured Code’s Things (Mac). Yes, it looks crazy to use three different tools, but it’s working for me so far.

The list of links

That last link has a great quote:

The problem is not that we’ve suddenly started depending on technology, but that the technology we’re depending on is poorly designed, too often focused on making money for its creators at its users’ expense.

I said my “next action” was to write and publish this blog post and yet over two weeks have gone by without me doing it. Well, the key thing was to remember to define this task and put it on my list of next actions. As I point out in my slides, GTD never does the work for you. I still had to sit in front of my computer and do the writing. Life happens. 🙂 Hey, it’s a work in progress – for the rest of my life!

Here are the slides for my presentation:

The conversation is continuing in September at TCUK14 where I will be speaking on the same topic, but with the added experience of 3 more months of getting things done.

If all this getting things done is getting to be too much, take comfort in Hyperbole-and-a-half’s explanation of why she’ll never be an adult.

Getting Down and Dirty with Accessibility and Usability – #TCUK12 Workshop

These are the notes from my workshop on 2 October 2012 at the Technical Communication UK (TCUK) 2012 conference. I called it “Getting Down and Dirty with Accessibility and Usability”. Unlike the slides for my keynote presentation at the same conference, the slides in this workshop were text heavy. (Slides are at the bottom of this post.) They were meant as notes – talking points – for the workshop. Each slide covers areas where technical communicators can begin to apply accessibility and usability right away.

The workshop was called hands-on, but I ended up talking for most of the session because many attended out of curiosity and had no actual projects for hands-on practice. There were many great discussions and questions and answers during the 2.5 hours of the workshop. (If any my TCUK12 workshop attendees come to TCUK13 and want to discuss accessibility “hands-on”, we can always hack in a corner of the bar! My treat!)

Due to the poor accessibility on Slideshare – presenter notes aren’t pulled out for the transcript, I am posting my own notes here (with the slide text for context). Other presenters express frustration about the downside of sharing slides. There is often little context and image-heavy slides can be meaningless even to people with sight.

I had extra slides so I wouldn’t run out of material. These are marked as such.

Introduction – Slides 2, 3, 4, 5

Today’s workshop. The pretty pictures are on your screens, not in these slides! What can be fixed right away and how? Where can you find more resources? We’ll look at what accessibility and usability tricks you can put in your toolkit. We’ll also discuss ways you can apply your new skills – I used the logo of TCUK to symbolise the field of technical communication. Finally, I had to be slightly corny and mention “enlightenment” – the dawning of new knowledge in the minds of many more technical communicators. I used a personal photo of a winter sunset to illustrate this point.

I mentioned how it all just takes one step at a time to implement accessibility. Here’s an article that demonstrates the one-step-at-a-time approach.

BAD Demo – Slide 6

The Before-and-After Demo from W3C:

. This is an excellent training/teaching resource. I had it downloaded on my laptop in case the wifi didn’t work. It demonstrates a site without and then with accessibility improvements. I referred to it a few times during my presentation. Kudos to the people in the Education and Outreach Group at the Web Accessibility Initiative who developed this great resource!

Good examples of accessible websites – Slide 7

For inspiration.

Alt text – Slide 8

I always point everyone to these links. They explain everything. Written by smart people!

And remember alt="" (Read the links to find out what that means.)

I had one more reference from @vdebolt with tips on using appropriate alt text that some of you might enjoy.

Title attribute – Slide 9

<title> is a misused attribute. Get the low-down in this excellent link:
Using the HTML title attribute

Longdesc – Slide 10

The <longdesc> is going through turbulent times, but I say go for it. There is a good article on longdesc from WebAIM.

I listed tables on my slide, but that was a mistake. Just read the article and you’ll get it straight. For more food for thought, read RNIB’s article on longdesc from 2008.

Jim Thatcher made a marvelous favelet tool for checking web accessibility. You can try it for checking longdesc, too. (I haven’t tested that.)

Headings and Structure – Slide 11

This should be an easy one for technical communicators. Use headings! Use structure!
My talking points were

  • Logical!
  • Skip to main content links (blind and keyboard users)
  • Sequence and patterns (non-linear navigation – reading order)
  • Style guides (for consistency)
  • ARIA

My support notes:Note that screen reader is only interested in HTML, not CSS, therefore structure (web standards) is important. Headings are the easiest way to identify structure. Proper structure and good use of headings aid navigation. Use semantic markup and good navigation. Keep things logical. Visual readers interpret the graphic presentation for navigation: headers, location, etc. A screen reader needs similar info because screen reader users need the same thing for navigation.

ARIA is especially helpful (more links later). There are 8 document landmark roles to help screen reader users navigate and identify purpose of content as explained in article on WAI ARIA document landmark roles.

Skip to main content links – beneficial not only to blind, but to keyboard users who want to get to a link in the main article and want to avoid all the navigation and advertising links. This is a useful article about skip to main content links.

It’s a myth that vision impaired users access everything in a linear fashion or listen to everything on the page. They can skip around on a page (if the structure lets them) and it helps if there is a pattern. Vision-impaired users access things sequentially – learn layout and become familiar. Frequent layout changes must be a pain! VI (vision-impaired) users listen to all on-screen text – they can skip around, too, listening to just enough to decide whether to stay or go. Source on VI reading patterns.

BBC has a standards and guidelines semantic markup guide they use. You can base your own in-house style guide on that, for example, to ensure that everyone uses markup correctly and consistently: BBC guidelines for semantic markup.

Lists – Slide 12

Lists: <ol> , <ul> , <li> , and CSS styling

Always use <li> , <ol> , <ul> , and style with your CSS. Why people don’t do this, I don’t know. It’s clean! Rumor has it that this is a problem so I mention it to make sure you don’t make this mistake! Reference: WebAIM article on lists.

Keyboard-only access – Slide 13

Can you do everything with a keyboard? Everything? I use for scheduling tweets, but I am unhappy with certain inaccessible aspects of the product. I must use a mouse or I cannot complete the login procedure. Same problem with Tweetdeck (which I don’t use). I cannot log in with a keyboard. This is crazy when social media is proving to be a great and growing community for people with disabilities – mouse-only means many are excluded. I’m told only onClick works with both keyboard and mouse. Why not use classic HTML where possible? This can solve your mobile needs, too. Making everything keyboard accessible is a basic improvement that can go a long way.

Color – Slide 14

Remember that color and color contrast and alternate indicators play together. Never use color as your only delimiter. In Denmark, it’s estimated that 8% men are colorblind and 0.5-1% women are colorblind. (Danish resource on colorblindness stats in Denmark.) Moral: consider what colors you are using. This color contrast check from is fantastic and very popular. Helps you determine whether you comply with standards, too. A keyword is contrast – watch out for color contrast. is a great resource about color issues.

Labels – Slide 15

Labels need to be made correctly. Always identify the form field with an id attribute. Then, create a label element for each field. Connect it to the input field’s id using the ‘for’ attribute. I took the images on the slide from this video demonstrating coding labels for accessibility. Using placeholder in form fields is optional, but read this article for an opinion on why placeholder is a bad idea with labels.

Link text – Slide 16


I rant the reasons why in my blog post I don’t want to read more or click here.

Plain Language – Slide 17 and 18

  • Design to Read
  • US: Center for Plain Language
  • US: Plain Language in the Federal government Plain Language in the Federal government and a Plain Language checklist
  • UK: Plain Language Commission
  • "How to Write Clearly" in 23 languages

    Text Size – Slide 19

    Tables – Slide 20

    Tables are for data. Not layout. Data. Make sure your tables are accessible. Because I don’t make tables regularly, I forget how to code them properly. I always have to look up the code, but I do look it up and make it accessible. Not doing so seems so wrong. The two resources here are a great help. Remember: use <summary> where you can also list number of columns and rows. Learn to love <th> element and <scope> attribute!

    Captioning – Slide 21

    I’ve given talks about captioning at TCUK10 and at the first a11yLDN unconference. I’ve pointed people to my presentation for captioning guidelines. Download the slides to get my presenter notes. They are vital – and not visible otherwise in Slideshare.

    Note: from slide 22 until my thank you at slide 35, I went very, very fast. I was running out of time and did want to close with the image on slide 34 and my closing credits. The slides are now getting heavier text-wise. They are meant as starting points for the topic in the slide header. I had so many resources for many topics. It was painful culling them!

    Video – Slide 22

    These are resources for accessible media players. Some are standalone players made to be accessible. The first link is a way to make YouTube accessible. The issue is that screen readers cannot access the controls for the typical media players, which means that they cannot access the video. And yes, blind people want to access videos to hear the information. Even a blind and deaf person could enjoy a video if it was captioned properly so there was an interactive transcript.

    Autoplay – Slide 23

    DON’T USE AUTOPLAY! It’s hard or impossible to stop using screen reader. If a page is opened in a different tab, the sudden noise can be confusing, startling, or conflicting. I.e. cognition issues. (And that applies to everyone and anyone. DON’T DO IT!!

    ARIA – Slide 24

    These articles do all the explaining about ARIA.

    Testing and Evaluation – Slide 25

  • WAVE
  • Color Contrast and more – a Mozilla add-on
  • Fireeyes from Deque
  • Functional Accessibility Evaluator
  • Web Developer Extension from Chris Pederick
  • Web Accessibility Toolbar for IE from The Paciello Group
  • W3C WAI Tool List
  • There are many tools out there to help you evaluate your site. It is good to try them all at first and get a feel for what works best for you. Having a couple installed is not a bad idea. They can back each other up. These can catch the major bloopers. Use these tools to catch the low-hanging fruit. But… Never uninstall the best overall evaluation tool you have – your brain!! If testing excites you, consider joining the Browser Testing and Tools Working Group.

    In a comment on the page for the Web Developer Extension, I found this helpful video/article about using the tool. See also articles in the accessibility testing category from Karl Groves. And, finally, the achecker testing tool.

    PS WebAIM has a new WAVE in beta. Check it out at

    Screen reader testing – Slide 26

    Standards – Slide 27

    WCAG 2 at a glance – Slide 28


    • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
    • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
    • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
    • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.


    • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
    • Give users enough time to read and use content.
    • Do not use content that causes seizures.
    • Help users navigate and find content.


    • Make text readable and understandable.
    • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
    • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


    • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

    This one of many WAI teaching resources.

    WCAG 2.0 – Slide 29

    • Understanding WCAG 2.0: A guide to understanding and implementing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
    • How to Meet WCAG 2.0: A customizable quick reference to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 requirements (success criteria) and techniques.

    Learn-more resources – Slide 30 and 31

    Get to know how a screen reader works by reading the first article. The "Just Ask" link is an online book that is also available in print form. It is also a great way to start your journey into accessibility.

    The first two links are teaching/teach-yourself resources.

    The third link is an excellent newsletter that comes out every week. It comes highly recommended.

    The last link is the number one link I’d recommend to any technical communicator – along with the “Just Ask” book mentioned elsewhere here.

    10 Principles – Slide 32

    • Be equitable
    • Be flexible
    • Be simple and intuitive
    • Be perceptible
    • Be informative
    • Be preventative
    • Be tolerant
    • Be effortless
    • Be accommodating
    • Be consistent

    These ten principles were written by Sandi Wassmer and are in people-speak and another way to get the mindset for building accessibly. View the 10 principles of inclusive web design online where there is also a link to download a PDF.

    My favorite quote – Slide 33

    When universal design processes fail to include, consult with, and listen to the people we are actually designing for, we also fail to design effectively.
    – Lisa Herrod

    The source of this quote is It has been broken for a while due to ISP issues. I keep referring to the link until it works or a new one replaces it.

    Image of man taking a photograph reflected on a metal surface – Slide 34

    In summary, think about how your work reflects back on you. The man in the photo sees his reflection on the shiny surface of a button on a lamp post in the city. Think back to the starting thought about quality – what quality will you see in your work?

    Official closing slide – Slide 35

    Thank you for listening! Questions?

    @kmdk / @stcaccess

    Extra – Slide 36

    All of the following slides are extras that would have been used as I saw fit on the spot. They are “as is” for interpretation.

    Mobile – Slide 37

    User diversity – Slide 38

    Test with real people!

    Users are different. But are you aware of the variety? When you test your systems, test with real people who have real disabilities. Personas can be a substitute in some cases. Personas can help teach accessibility. Developers are more likely to respond if they can see how people can be affected by their inaccessible web pages.

    Demo of an accessible infographic and alt text – Slide 39

    I (heart)

    (Slide 39 through 44 show screenshots that illustrate good use of alt text and an accessible infographic. It is meant for situations where there is no wifi.)

    Confession: I love WebAIM. They have so many resources I can learn from. Let’s start the discussion with an example from WebAIM: an infographic of web accessibility tips for designers (and developers). A pretty .png picture. Useless to someone with little or no vision.

    Slide 40

    The pretty picture is available on their site – ALONG with a text version…

    Slide 41

    The text version is the text that is in the image we first saw. All the text was pulled from the picture and put into this alternate form. At the top of the screen shown here is a link to an accessible version of the .png file…

    Slide 42

    Someone else – Chris Throup – made an accessible version of the picture. Looks the same.

    Slide 43

    But the code reveals how there is no image in what looked like an image on the previous slide. It’s just code – machine-readable code.

    Slide 44

    This slide shows Chris Thorup’s code with – at the bottom of the slide – a sample of the WebAIM code for the text version. The same message gets across, but in 2 different ways. The WebAIM sample showed icons echoing the original image. However, those icons use alt text to tell a person using a screen reader what that icon represents. All in all, a lovely real-life example of making something accessible to many different needs.

    Twitter+ Resources – Slide 45

    People are probably the best resources of all. This is the tip of the iceberg here. I could talk for hours about the people I think you should follow. It caused me pain to not include some people. Some may be at a far higher level of coding knowledge than you are comfortable with. Break out of your comfort zone! Or share these links with your favorite developers. They are people well worth following. Note that the last one also has a forum where you can ask all sorts of questions related to developing accessibly.

    Coding resources – Slide 46

    Great coding resources for anyone wanting to get down and get real dirty! The Mozilla ARIA resource is huge and growing. Start your ARIA explorations there.


    Special thanks to John Kearney and Neal Dench for helping me finish this blog post. October has been crazy busy for me so the posting process got a wee bit too delayed.

    Thanks to the people of the WebAIM discussion list – especially Birkir! – who have been an inspiration for other presentations that led up to this workshop.

    Thanks to TCUK (and dear David Farbey) for inviting me to be a keynote speaker. That led to me daring to give this workshop.

    Material in this workshop builds on material from past presentations I have given. There are some messages (for example, the one about alt text) that still bear repeating. As long as there are things out there that are broken – and shouldn’t be, these messages need to be repeated.